Japan to draft policy package by year-end to accept more foreign workers


Japan's justice minister said Wednesday the country will draw up by year-end "comprehensive measures" for welcoming more foreign nationals as the country aims to open up to blue-collar overseas workers from next spring amid a severe labor crunch.

Takashi Yamashita said the measures will not only cover new visa statuses to expand the types of foreign workers the country accepts, but also other steps covering foreign nationals in the country in general.

The government plans to accept around 40,000 workers in the first year from April, and eventually bring hundreds of thousands of additional laborers from abroad, according to government sources.

His remarks came a day after the sources said Japan is set to revise its public health insurance system and apply stricter rules for its coverage to prevent abusive use mainly by foreigners.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also said on Wednesday the government "will create a system in which it can properly deal with" the existing problems over the use of the insurance system, which caps an insured person's monthly payment of medical bills depending on the person's age and income.

Japan's social welfare system offers services to a user regardless of his or her nationality.

The insurance, which covers medical expenses by not only corporate workers but also their kin, currently does not require the kin — including great-grandparents and grandchildren financially supported by the workers — to be living in Japan.

The government is planning to submit bills to the Diet next year to amend laws relevant to the insurance system, although it is unlikely to be revised in time for the new immigration program that could take effect in April.

The planned revision is aimed at blocking the use of the insurance scheme by foreigners who have never lived in Japan, including the kin of such incoming laborers.

Cases have been reported in which non-resident relatives even had their medical expenses in other countries reimbursed under the Japanese system, the sources said.

Similarly, the kin of Japanese workers will also be required to live in Japan in order to be covered by the system after the revision. But the government is considering making exceptions for the kin of Japanese laborers who are temporarily living abroad for studies or work.

As of October last year, the number of foreign workers in Japan stood at a record 1.28 million, doubling from 680,000 in 2012, with Chinese making up the largest group of around 370,000, followed by Vietnamese and Filipinos, according to the labor ministry.

In order to accept more foreign blue-collar workers, the government submitted Friday a bill to revise the immigration law with the aim of passing the legislation during the ongoing parliamentary session through Dec. 10 and introducing the new immigration program in April.

The bill would create two types of residence status for non-Japanese workers for 14 sectors deemed seriously short of labor, ranging from construction and farming to nursing care, due to the rapidly aging population and low birth rate.

The move marks a major policy shift for Japan, which has largely restricted imported labor until now. The country has mainly accepted highly-skilled professionals in such fields as medicine and law, while taking in only a tiny number of refugees.

Japan is considering accepting more Asian refugees who are under protection in neighboring countries from 2020, with an eye to doubling the current annual ceiling of around 30.

Yamashita explained at a Diet committee the government has no intention of setting an upper limit on the number of foreign workers to be accepted under the new system, although he said he plans to halt the influx of foreign workers in sectors where a labor shortage has been resolved.


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